Posts Tagged ‘design thinking’


idea generation tools for the lonely head

January 3, 2014

Two heads are better than one. Yes. Sometimes that is correct. But other times, there’s only one head to think of ideas or solutions. So what’s that head to do?

Creativity can be taught, nurtured, and enhanced. We are all born with it. In fact, the right brain part  – responsible for ideas, intuition, love and absorbing information fast – is developed faster in the fetus than the left brain that is in charge of rational, linear or logical thinking. Geniuses are no different than any of us. They are not smarter by birth, but they know how to balance logic with play and therefore think smarter, a tool anyone can learn

Luckily, there are hundreds of tools to generate ideas. Sadly, not many people use those tools regularly. There is a strong correlation between the quality and the quantity of ideas. There’s a need to try many ideas in order to generate something groundbreaking. My intention here is to showcase some simple tools, each can be done in 5 minutes or less, and require nothing but a pen and paper to produce a lot of ideas to solve one problem or challenge. And remember, just like Einstein claimed, sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge.


A simple change of words or the order of words in a problem statement will stimulate your imagination by adding new dimensions of meaning, as an unobservable process in your mind has initiated and may lead to a new thought or idea, says Michael Michalko  in his book, Cracking Creativity. Suppose you want to increase sales. See how you can change perspectives by changing the verb:

In what ways might I increase sales?

In what ways might I attract sales?

In what ways might I develop sales?

In what ways might I extend sales?

In what ways might repeat sales?

In what ways might I stop sales?

Notice the last question has a negative aspect. By thinking in the opposite way, you can rid your mind from all the reasons why you cannot make sales. And when you set to plan, plan the opposite.

Using the same exercise, try to change the words in your challenge. If you look at the opening between two rooms and think door, that’s the only idea you will get. But if you consider another word like passageway, air curtain, tunnel, or even a hole in a wall, you will bring your thinking into a different lateral level.


Deliberately ask stupid questions to shock your mind out of its original patterns. Then suspend judgment and use that statement to generate ideas. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make a statement (examples: people should fly to work, we should eat for free in restaurants, people need to sleep standing up)
  1. Examine it
    1. Consequences of the statement
    2. What the benefits would be
    3. What special circumstances will make it a sensible solution
    4. Principles needed to support it and make it work.
    5. How it would work moment-to-moment
    6. What would happen if a sequence of events was changed

The more outrageous your statement is, the more creative your ideas to try and make it work. It’s worth a try.


Take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

Place your problem in a bubble (draw it) and then produce the ideas or solutions that you can think of for this problem. Next, move that problem into a bigger area or category. Come up with ideas or solutions for that bigger issue. Repeat another time if needed and then choose the level at which you find an inspiring solution.

concept fan


Are you solving the right problem? Or is it a symptom of it? To find out the right level at which you need to focus, do the 5 whys method. Write your problem down, and ask yourself “why” do I need to do it. Write your answer down (so now you have 2 sentences written on top of each other). Then ask again, why (for the second statement) and write the third response and then ask again, why. Do that 5 times and each time you will reach a higher level of abstract thinking. Make sure to write your answers on top of each other with the “why” in between each sentence.

Then go for the “how” and next to each sentence you wrote, ask “How” and give an idea or two on how you can solve the problem at that level, and at each level consequently. Once you’ve answered all 5 hows, you can see your problem, and some initial ideas on different levels of abstraction. Choose the one you are comfortable with to try out and continue from there. Here’s an example. The first “steps” WHY are in blue, the second steps HOW are in orange

Choose the level which you are comfortable (and able) to work with and generate as many ideas as you can to solve that issue.

how how


There are a number of ways to decompose a challenge to smaller more workable bits. One can decompose it based on sequence of events. If it’s a product to be used, then what are the steps to use such product (from needing the product, to looking for it, finding it, using and then releasing or archiving it). If it’s a service, then those are the steps to accomplish it. Note down the sequence of steps as a diagram and then work on each one to generate more ideas on how to improve that step. For example, how to make our morning routines go smoother and maybe faster. We note the steps and then we find a way to combine, shorten or eliminate unnecessary ones

decompose sequence


What if you were the very same idea you are trying to come up with. What if you were the project you’re trying to complete at work. How does it if feel to get close to a “dead” line? How could you be easier to handle? Who do you need to speak with when you are happy? When suffering? Imagine yourself a watch or a chair. How could you become more attractive? More comfortable? How can you make others want to be around you, and you only?


Roger von Oech advices in his Creative Whack Pack that the key to metaphorical thinking is comparing unrelated concepts and finding similarities between them. What similarities does your idea have with cooking a meal? Conducting an orchestra? Building a house? Raising a child? What can you compare your idea to?


Explain your problem to a 5 years old. What would you say? Explain it to your great grandmother. How would you relate? Simplify your language to get a clearer image of what you’re up against.


write a random list of jobs that are as far from your immediate life as possible. A nurse, a truck driver, an architect, a fire fighter or a winter sports olymian. State your problem as you see it, then re-state it thinking how would that person in one of those professions see it. Then generate ideas from his/her point of view.

For example, if your problem is manging the overloaded sales for a particular product, you can ask, how would a nurse manage  an overloaded ICU unit, giving each patient what they need, when they need it? how would a truck driver manage an overloaded vehicle or an overloaded street? how would a fire fighter mange to take care of a full “overloaded” building that has a fire alarm set and no sign of fire, yet. Write ideas for each new hat you are wearing, then re-group all ideas and see which ones you can alter or change or use as it is for your overloaded sales problem


Use what you know about nature in imagining your problem from its perspective. Choose an animal you are familiar with, and ask yourself how would this animal solve your problem? Do the exercise another time and choose a plant, and then a third time and chose an insect. Repeat.

…….  Now that you have a number of tools to work with, let me know which one did magic for you and which was lame. I will add more tools or ideas to help you out whether you are a long, or with a group of people, anything from 2 to 200 people. Good Luck. Cheers!


A Rabbit Detour

February 12, 2011

It is said that Rabbits are one of the only species of animal simultaneously considered pets, pests, and livestock animals by people in the same culture. talk about being so versatile!

Rabbits, animals, forests, and the whole ecosystem are fascinating me these days. I’m looking at nature as a live book or a very animated teacher, sometimes, it becomes a good listerner friend when I find myself babbling on today’s issues and problems we face daily.

In celebrating the new Chineese Year, and in keeping with the spirit of the rabbit, I will maintain sensitive ears and eyes to watch my surrounding, continue an unpredictable way of dealing with life’s detours, and still go with the flow.

It’s been almost 2 years since i last wrote something on this blog, or any place for the matter. it was not beacuse i didn’t have anything to say or the time to say it. i was simply getting too much involved in everything that i didn’t take the time to reflect on things as they happen. A requirement to make the necessary connections.

To say the least, it was a speedy, bumpy ride. However, with every slow-down over a bump, i managed to take a quick glance on the scenery around me, get lost numerous times, and overall enjoyed the ride. In times of change like this one, i plan to write about those speedy roads, as well as the unpredictable detours.

One of those short turns was my initial encounter with biomimicry 4 years ago. I fail to remember when did i hear about it first, but i rememeber very well how much sense it made to me. The basics are considering nature as a model, as a measure, and as a mentor. In Janine Benyus’s book “Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature”, she explained those facts:

1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf.

2. Nature as measure. Biomimicry uses an ecologucal standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned. What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

3. Nature as mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. it introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

As i hit another bump in my life, Architectural Engineering, I see a big connection between both fields and a story that screams to be told. There has been many attemps and examples on using nature as our inspirational teacher when desinging our buildings. One of the famous ones is the East Gate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. Designed by Mick Pearce and Arup Associates, developed an air conditioning system modeled on the self-cooling mounds of Termites.

Image source:

I claim no interest in developing a final model of a building that took nature as its first draft, but i have an urge to find where biomimicry links with the design process or design thinking for the matter. If the Rabbit lives in burrows or underground passages which they excavate in the soil, how does one of its predators (the fox for example) design its home? Does it look for rabbit hideouts or it locates it in a place that best fits the family need? does it consider the material available on hand or it has special requirements? how does their home serve their lifestyle?

That, and other things, are some of the upcoming bumps I look forward to find on my road.

Happy Rabbit’s Year.


Prototype this!

March 10, 2009

Here comes the fun part…

From as early as our elementary years, we are taught how to be smart by thinking through our problems and then be graded for our final projects or that one-time final exam.

What a boring and inefficient method of learning.

Prototyping brings a much more vivid and interactive method of learning from our “thinking”. If we are adept in using whatever available materials to quickly build a model for the issue we’re working on, we get to learn from the simulation of the experience using the prototype immediately rather than wait for the final product to arrive.

Why is this useful? According to IDEO, the design consultancy company, prototyping is useful for revealing unanticipated issues or needs, as well as evaluating ideas.

How else would you move from technical competence to true innovation? By experimenting ofcourse! When you get into the habit of prototyping new ideas continuously, you learn by the process of trial and error. And just like kids in the playground, you need to have a curious attitude and an open mind to notice the things you are expecting, and not expecting.

It shouldn’t be a big task on your to-do list either. Prototyping can be anything: a drawing, a model, a picture or a film you snap in a minute. If it’s a service you’re focused on, a simple role playing or scenario writing can be used. You build it very quickly, roughly, and without any worries of being elegant or presentable. The goal is not to present it to your board at the end of the day as a draft of a product (for an example), it is to get instant feedback that will help solve problems with the product or the process. In a sense, it helps you think. Get as many versions as your aspects that needs highlighting.

Here’s a snap shop from IDEO’s Toolkit for Human Centered Design that was put together to enhance the lives of smallholder farmers around the world.

prototype example

Try it! Take delight in how fast you take a concept from words to sketch, to model, to a successful new offering. The fun is in the process!



Ideating in Design Thinking.

January 15, 2009

According to legend …  or at least to the d school , the next two steps in design thinking is to ideate and prototype under the Exploration phase.

let’s try to understand what does ideate means.d-school-design-thinking-model-elaborate

To visualize, is to have a vision of your desired outcome. To ideate, is to come up with as many images in your mind in relation to the issue at hand. The problem that many people face when ideating is they become overly concerned about how their ideas will be perceived. Most ideas never leave the thinker’s mind because of the internal calculations and scrutinizing. This has many reasons, it could be to save face and not seem ridiculous, not feeling confident in own idea, or not trusting the receiving end. Sadly, it is everybody’s loss as well.

To overcome such situation, an important concept needs to be in place: that is separating divergent and convergent thinking when addressing issues at hand. The balance between both is so central that I will focus on each separately while explaining the design thinking model at hand.

Puccio, Murdock and Mance in their book “Creative leadership” (2007) explained how Guilford identified four basic characteristics of divergent thinking: fluency, flexibility, elaboration and originality. I won’t go into detail in each one of them but the idea is when we ideate, we don’t squelsh the ideas made by us or by others and we come up with as many from our minds as well as building on others.

Many tools have been used for ideating. For example, in brainstorming we come up with numerous point of views that are directly or indirectly related to our subject matter. The trick is not to give any idea more than few seconds of our time when it is stated and documented, then we move on to other ideas until we are ready to converge or evaluate. brainstorming has many variations, such as brain writing, brain walking, or SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate, Rearrange).  You can find out more about conducing a good brainstorming session from this short article titled “10 guidelines for effective brainstorming“.

On a wilder side, you can use tools such as “Forced Connections” by using objects that are unrelated to the situation. This ability to borrow ideas from one context to solve a problem in other context. here’s how:

1. Identify a challenge. Offer it as a question to be answered. i.e. How might we address the pollution in the city?

2. Select an object unrelated to the challenge. Anything! a chair, a lamp, a an office building.

3. Note the characteristics of the object. What’s the size, shape, color, uses, texture, smell, etc.

4. Force a connection between the object and the challenge. Ask “what ideas do I get for addressing pollution from my jeans?

5. Repeat with additional objects. keep selecting new ones and connecting new ideas.

6. Use other senses and modalities. explore listening, touching, etc.

7. Let us know how did it go 🙂

While this tool requires effort only the first few times (after that it will be second to nature, believe me!), there are other tools that are less innovative in that sense but have the same effect such as the Random Word. Here’s how: Get a dictionary or open any book on any page and place your finger on any word, then force a connection between that word and your challenge and enjoy the rich texture of your new ideas.

In this step of design thinking, I have not connected directly with social innovation since ideational thinking is a skill applied to everything we do on a daily basis. Using stories to come up with scenarios and visualizing our solutions in very colorful mind images are very powerful tools that if one has, one can accomplish much.

Happy imagination.




Creating a Point of View (step 3)

November 28, 2008

When we want to decide on a positive change in our lives..  we look at what we have, what we are missing and somehow figure out a way to solve the missing piece.

When we want to change a system, we have to look at what the system has (from the specific lens we are focusing on), what it is missing and figure out a way to bring back the missing.

One way of understanding systems is by using principles of ethnography.


When we try to understand a point of view that is different from us, we go to the person’s (or subject) natural environment. There we are able to look, listen and ask questions… taking notes of all details. In explaining interaction design, Preece, Rogers and Sharp gives an understanding of what user-centered approaches may feel like. Ethnography in this sense can help with some tools and approaches. ٍSome examples of user-centered approaches are: Coherence (questions that guides towards issues of systems development), Contextual Design (gathering data and presenting practical design), and PICTIVE and CARD methods (participatory design techniques that empower users to take an active part in design decisions). There are millions of ways to do things.. the trick is to find one way that fits both the issue at hand and the styles of those who are tackling it. David Hurst, in talking about the challenges of organizational change, pointed out that in order to change the structure of something, you need to change the dynamics that supports it. Same thing goes to bigger innovations that involves a complex connections of systems and their dynamics.

When we go about finding data… we often misunderstand the task by looking only for facts and figures. If we really want to understand different points of views we need to dig deeper. we need to understand the emotions and the real reasons that make people (or system) do the things the way they do.  It helps to have more than one ethnographer studying the issue because we often note some salient features that are sometimes only visible to us (because of our background, experience and attached emotions). Design thinking is built on multidisciplinary teams where each one brings his/her own salient features of the issue, in which allows a better picture of all point of views.

In researching the issue of design thinking, in her studies, Helene Cahen attempted to answer the question that many of us will start wondering very soon: what are we observing??

** Behavior. for one. We want to see the rituals, roles, activities, play and diversions that people undertake when they mix with the issue we are studing.

** Meaning: what do those symbols, signs, beliefs, gestures, values, attitudes and opinion mean? what is the language used? (both practically and figuratively).

**Tools: space, technology, rules, techniques are only limited examples of what tools maybe. what is being used for communication? for progress? for play?

Observing and understanding others Points of View is something that requires some practice. The untrained eye will watch and connect what it sees with readily available patterns in the head. We are built that way and that’s the easiest way to understand our surroundings. But with practice, we can start looking at things in a new interesting (sometimes unusual) ways. Looking at things as if we don’t understand what’s going on and we’re trying to figure out this new piece of information.

Kids do it all the time. because of their limited background information, they treat all new information with an open mind and an interest to try things. The rules of the world (and us adults) stand in their way of this discovery by telling them what it is (very narrowly), warning them from danger, or asking them to do what we say.

that said, it takes time and much energy to allow ourselves to wander freely when we create many points of views, that may or may not, be in accordance of our own.


Happy wandering.



Observing Social Innovation (step 2 in design thinking)

November 22, 2008

We talked about understanding the concept behind social innovation. Instinctively, this calls for observation as well. It is one thing to understand a concept and another to actually look at something, with no prior judgements in mind and observe the different elements that holds it together. In the case for Social Innovation, it is not as easy as we don’t have a product or a service where we simply watch people using it, it is a bigger more complex concept that we need to observe truly how it evolves in a certain area and who’s involved (and what they do with it).

In the previous example of Grameen Bank and Dr. Muhamad Younus, the process evovled from the Professor and and a small village in Bangladesh, to involve many villages, many professors, banks, government, companies, and the whole world got involved. Observing and immersing oneself in the process will open up on the methods that it needed to be created successfully. One would understand how each stakeholder involved attached him/herself to the process and what they went through. It usually is never the same for two people.

Another simple tool to observing the process is by interviewing. In writing his book “The Opposable Mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking”, Roger Martin interviewed Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat inc, the world’s dominant provider of Linux software. Bob Young saw two dominant business models for software entrepreneurs: companies who invested heavily in research and development and charged hefty fees for updated versions, and those who provided cheap softwares made a small profit each time a new version was released. In his social innovative mind, Bob Young incorporated aspects of each model: as ideologically committed to the open source movement, he decided Red Hat’s software would continute to be free. At the same time, he would profit by establishging an ongoing service relationship with his customers. This new model established Red Hat’s dominance and assured its financial strength (annual revenue of $400 million). Not bad for social innovation!


Understand your social innovation topic (a step in Design Thinking)

November 13, 2008

In the d school, there is no linear method to understand design thinking. The step by step process we will take is not an indication of which comes first. It’s just to facilitate the communication about it.


In understanding the situation or issue at hand, we look at it through our own lens of expertise and we focus on the things that matter the most to us. The very same issue could be tackled in a completely different way from someone else who has other salient features available to them. The more creative we are, the more we are able to notice those other features as well, and then determine if we want to take them into consideration or not.



To understand a huge topic such as social innovation, the very first step would be our sincere interest and passion to know more about both elements: the social, and the innovation. The first time I learned about this was last year, as part of a training offered by the Centre for Social Innovation (you’d think I’d get a hint from their name, but that was a slow day for me). They describe the process as the new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet. A true social innovation is systems-changing – it permanently alters the perceptions, behaviours and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges. Some examples are the Wikipedia, the Open university in the UK, micro-credit, the fair trade movement, and community wind farms (Geoff Mulgan talks more about these examples). When you dig deeper into the research as part of your thinking mechanism (now that you became a design thinker), you get more information on the leadership qualities behind those who pioneer it, the environmental factors that facilitate its process, and even how to notice the missing gaps that can lead to a socially innovative idea. In the case of micro-credit, one of the leading figures and a Nobel Prize winner is Dr. Muhamad Younus, who noticed that a village of 42 people in Bangladesh only needed $27 to pay their debt and save them from the loan sharks. He loaned his own money to the villagers thinking it was a gift, and was surprised when the money was returned to him fully after the villagers recovered their losses. That initiated a movement of micro-credit around the world.


Another thing you can do to understand the issue at hand is by talking to experts. Experts are those who will use the innovation, the affected ones, in addition to those who know about it. You start by understanding the needs that aren’t being met, and consider some ideas of how it could be met. Sometimes needs are very obvious like homelessness or hunger. Other times they are less obvious like domestic violence or racism. In Geoff Mulgan point of view: “empathy is the starting point, and ethnography is usually a more relevant formal tool than statistical analysis”. Everyone knows how to solve their problems, some need courage, others need resources or support. If you find those who champion the success stories, then you can get insight into what’s possible and more effective.


When you immerse yourself in the topic of your choice, inevitably you will get experience. This will help you further hone down your target and the solutions proposed. You will find support if you take the extra mile. This support can come from others working with you or from organizations willing to sponsor you. Some of the big organizations that support social innovation for example are:Eva’s Initiatives Award for Innovation, the Institute for Social Invention and their Global Ideas BankMIT Community Innovation Lab, the Social Action Laboratory at Melbourne, South Africa’s Poverty Action Lab, Innovation Lab Copenhagen , Civic Innovation Lab.




Bon recherche!